Learning Tech – The Wild, Wild West

These days, Learning & Development (L&D) professionals are swamped with digital tools that exist to improve, scale, expand and differentiate learning. Otherwise known as Learning Tech (LT). The HR tech industry is booming and LT is no outlier. 

The number of players on the LT market has exploded, according to Josh Bersin there are more than 200 Learning Management System (LMS) vendors, more than 30 Learning Experience Platforms (LxP) vendors and thousands of other vendors of tools for collaboration and learning in other ways. Last month, the e-learning market reported an expected growth of 14% by 2025. And research by Fosway shows that 50% of organizations expect to increase their investment in learning systems in the near future.

You can imagine that the market is quite overcrowded with lots of vendors trying to get their piece of the cake

It also means a lot of different avenues to explore, from knowing your internal systems, to talking to other L&D professionals and networks, reading endless articles on LT, or talking to many of the LT vendors that are reaching out to you. 

It’s pretty overwhelming – its really the wild, wild west! But navigating the landscape is unavoidable. You can’t get by with only being a great trainer or behavioural analyst. To be the best expert you can be, and to deliver a great learning experience to the organization, it’s also essential that you know your LT. 

In GreenHouse (the L&D team at Spotify) we often get questions about LT. This post shares some insight into how we think about LT and how we find the best approach to allow us to reach our goal: enabling and empowering our band members to learn what they need to learn, to make great things happen for the company and for themselves.

The One Holy System or Your Own Ecosystem

One of the topics often on the agenda when speaking to L&D colleagues in other companies is their struggle to understand and make sense of the LT offerings out there. 

And it’s hard, but organizing the thoughts into the different needs and resulting approaches helps. Overall we see two dominant tracks in LT development right now.

One track is where companies want everything in one system to keep it easy, and vendors are trying to accommodate for that by developing all the functionality they can think of, even things outside of their core product, and original offering. 

This can create the feeling of the wild, wild west – a place where the laws don’t apply, and no one is sticking to their original area of expertise. Engagement survey vendors are venturing into learning, LxP vendors are building out LMS functionality. LMS vendors starting to cover performance management etc. All this makes it harder to paint the map and understand it fully. Also, a vendor that’s covering all the HR areas in one system, is seldom really good at all the parts. 

The second stream is where we see companies like ours, having realised that those days when one system solves all needs, are gone. That one integrated system that’s excellent in all areas – it’s utopia. Instead we’re creating our own ecosystem of many smaller (great) systems connected to the backbone of a good HR System. We like this approach because it makes you adaptable to change. And you get the best pieces.

A factor that affects both streams is how the boom in LT has impacted the planning horizon. Planning a decade ahead and keeping a system for 10+ years is a thing of the past. Nowadays it’s hard to have a longer horizon than 2-3 years. The pace of development is so high that it’s hard to think too long term.

This is something to consider when choosing the right approach to a system – it’s easier to change the parts of the ecosystem you replace or modify it piece by piece.

The Coolness Factor 

As with so many new tech things, there’s a lot of organizations tempted to invest in certain things for the coolness factor, and there is nothing wrong with that – who doesn’t want a cool product with the coolest features? But don’t let it blind you, and don’t get fooled by the shiny surface. Dig deeper and see how it’s working. Does it fill your needs of functionality as well?

At Spotify, we’ve seen many LT vendors producing a “playlist system” for learning content, with a curated content approach based on machine learning recommendation engines and adding a sleek user interface – creating LT systems based on their interpretation of the Spotify tech model. This is great when it’s working – and works well for the L&D department’s objective. But again, dig deeper to make sure there is more under the hood.

There are so many good tools out there – it’s really important to take a step back and really think about what is the most beneficial to you, not just what seems like an obvious or cool choice on the surface. You really need to look beyond the coolness factor and think about what your needs really are. Is it really the playlist feature you need, or is it something else, say an elaborate event management system? What will help you reach your goals of increasing learning in the company faster and better?

FOMO and The Emperor’s New Clothes

A fear of missing out (FOMO) is probably something we’ve all felt at one time or another. And it happens in the LT space in a big way. With new trends popping up frequently it’s easy to believe that everything is new, and everything new in L&D is really important to stay ahead of the game.

But is it really new, and is it always what you need?

Some of the trends and buzzwords that have been fashionable in the recent past (and still are) are things like Learning Experience (Systems), Up-Skilling and Reskilling, and Learning In The Flow Of Work – just to mention a few.      

Don’t get us wrong, we enjoy the trends and buzzwords popping up, it feeds our need for newness and our curiosity, and gives us food for thought. And we always explore new trends, as some of them will be great or even revolutionary to us! But – we don’t let them dictate our L&D path, and we challenge ourselves not to end up in an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation.  

Never go for a trend without dissecting it and asking yourself; is this truly something new and something that will add value to our company? Is it perhaps a new word for an old phenomenon, can still be good, but perhaps something you are already familiar with? For example, we used to say “competence development” and now we say “up-skilling”.

As L&D professionals we should be aware of the trends driven by vendor’s marketing of a new technology, and make sure we don’t choose to invest in specific LT just because the technology exists now. It’s more important to consider the value to the organization and whether a new technology will actually make your life easier, or make you and your team better at delivering learning experiences, rather than jumping on a bandwagon just because you can, or because you see another organization doing it. 

A few tips along the way

  • The organizations’ needs – don’t copy paste another company’s choice, just because they are happy with it. Evaluate whether you have the same needs, the same mix of learning, or demand for scale and/or flexibility. Find a system that supports your learning culture and where you want to go. 

 

  • See through the sales tactics – don’t fall in the trap of feeling FOMO. Be realistic about what you need and keep challenging yourself on whether you are staying focussed on that.

 

  • Don’t build it yourself, or customize too much – it will come back and bite you in the butt when you’d like to change as it’s so much harder to modify when you’ve invested time and effort into something tailor made.

 

  • Choose your path – if you are on the hunt for a new system, weigh up the options with your future plans in mind. Decide if you want to go with a new start-up with seemingly mind blowing functionality, but most is still on the roadmap. Yes, in this situation you can often have an influence on the development of the tool, but on the other hand, is a system a more stable and mature system better for you? There you get what you see, but maybe not with all the latest stuff on the roadmap yet.

 

  • Don’t limit yourself – remember that the companies that label themselves as learning tech companies are not the only ones with tools that can be used for learning. So much learning happens in other places, on comms platforms like workplace or slack. Or in collaboration tools (G-suite, MS teams). Make use of the full palette – find your learners where they are.

Risk

As you begin to map out your choices in LT bear in mind, that it does take guts, and some risk taking. It’s like buying a TV – you can be pretty confident that even if you buy the latest, coolest, most advanced model, by the time it’s delivered to your home there’s a newer, cooler, more advanced version out there. You’ll never feel like a winner when buying a TV.

The secret is to accept and learn to live with your choice. If you choose a good TV you will have lots of joy from it the next coming years, but it’s not forever.

It’s the same with LT, so when taking the risk, choose the tools and systems and approach that’s right for you. The one that matches your learning culture, and contributes to your objective. That way you can be comfortable that you’ll be able to live with your decision and will get value from it for a few years. 

And explore – stay excited and inspired. It’s a confusing, overwhelming and complex landscape, but there’s so much opportunity too! That’s the way to navigate the wild, wild, west.